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New York City Council Member Carlina Rivera bags her purchase of cannabis gummies at Housing Works, New York's first legal cannabis dispensary, during a press conference to kick-off its opening, on Dec. 29.Bebeto Matthews/The Associated Press

The first legal dispensary for recreational marijuana in New York rung up its first sales on Thursday, opening up what is expected to be one of the country’s most lucrative markets for cannabis – underscored by the dozens of unauthorized shops that have operated in the open for years.

The widely anticipated opening of the first state-sanctioned dispensary, which is operated by the nonprofit Housing Works, paves the way for a string of openings expected in the coming months in New York. The state legalized recreational marijuana use in March 2021.

“We’re absolutely thrilled to be the first and hopefully setting a model that other folks will have to follow,” said Charles King, the chief executive officer of Housing Works, a minority-controlled social-service agency that serves people with HIV and AIDS, as well as those who are homeless and formerly incarcerated.

The lower Manhattan store is the first of 36 recently licensed dispensaries to open, with an additional 139 licenses yet to be issued by the state Office of Cannabis Management and 900 applicants still awaiting word. Among the first round of licensees were eight nonprofits that included Housing Works.

The cannabis storefront abuts the sprawling urban campus of New York University.

“This location is a perfect location. We’re between the West Village, the East Village,” King said at a news conference Thursday morning. “Tourists can come by here easily. So we think we’re going to bring up a lot of sales here.”

Facing a cluster of cameras, Chris Alexander, the inaugural executive director of the state cannabis office, made the first purchase: watermelon-flavored gummies and a tin of marijuana flowers.

“It’s been a lot of work that’s come to get us to this point,” Alexander said. “We do have a lot more work to do, a lot more stores to open.”

Housing Works officials said that the dispensary has already received more than 2,000 reservations to make purchases.

Ben Gilbert, 38, a media specialist, smoked a marijuana cigarette just outside the new retail outlet and said he was looking forward to the store’s official opening at 4:20 p.m. Thursday.

“As a consumer, I’m glad to finally go to a store and buy New York-grown cannabis,” he said.

New York City Councilmember Carlina Rivera also bought gummies, and said she no longer needs to travel out of state for legal cannabis. She predicted that more openings will be a boon to the state and city economy.

“We are the financial centre of the world, the greatest city on earth, and I think people will now come here to enjoy all types things,” she said.

New York joined nearly two dozen other states in the U.S. to legalize recreational marijuana. But unlike many other states, New York has reserved its first round of retail licenses for nonprofits, as well as applicants with marijuana convictions and their relatives – an acknowledgment of the inequities produced by the country’s war on drugs.

It also planned a $200 million public-private fund to aid social equity businesses, which the law defined as those owned by women or minorities, struggling farmers, disabled veterans and people from communities that endured heavy pot policing.

“We have seen firsthand the ravages of the war on drugs, on people who use drugs, particularly the most marginalized people, low income people,” King said.

King said that his nonprofit is hiring people who have been criminalized because of marijuana. Housing Works pursued getting a license because they wanted “to have the opportunity to ameliorate some of the harsh circumstances implicated in both the criminalization of cannabis as well as other drugs,” he said.

“Today marks a major milestone in our efforts to create the most equitable cannabis industry in the nation,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams in a statement. “The opening of the first legal dispensary in our state right here in New York City is more than just a promising step for this budding industry – it represents a new chapter for those most harmed by the failed policies of the past.”

Adams won his seat on a tough-on-crime platform that rejected progressive activists’ calls to defund the police. He promised to strike the right balance between fighting crime and ending racial injustice in policing. As mayor, he has proposed boosting police and jail spending.

Gov. Kathy Hochul called the first legal sale of adult-use cannabis “a historic milestone in New York’s cannabis industry.”